Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Prisoners (2013) – Review

Review: Prisoners is a dark, involving mystery. The film is about Keller Dover, a man who will stop at nothing to get his daughter back after she and her friend are kidnapped. Meanwhile, police Detective Loki begins to unravel an almost thirty-year-old mystery as he searches for the two girls.

Director Denis Villeneuve’s narrative can be taken as a character drama as the film explores the effects the tragedy of losing one’s daughter takes on the Dover family and the Birch family (the parents of the other girl). Detective Loki’s dramatic journey is also showcased heavily. However, the film works better as a straight mystery. Villeneuve structures the narrative primarily around the discovery of new pieces of information, eventually leading the characters and audience to the kidnapper – fitting the genre norm. The characters are but mere pieces on the board that Villeneuve moves around to fulfill their narrative roles, divulging information and making discoveries as they do.

There is not really a lot of context into who these character are and why they are the way they are when the audience is introduced to them – it is not necessary given that this is a detective film and the narrative is driven by the unraveling of the mystery. But, for this to really work as a character drama (which at times it seems like it is trying to be), the audience needs more background. As it is, there is no context for comparison. The audience sees the characters lead to dark places, what the strain makes them capable of, but for all the audience knows these characters have always been on the edge, and this kidnapping is just the tipping point or an excuse and not a full on venture down uncharted waters.

Keller Dover both appears very capable and willing to commit the acts that he undertakes under the guise of trying to find his daughter, but the audience is also shown moments in which he feels the gravity of what he is actually doing. But, more than Villeneuve exploring this as a way to tell the audience something about Dover or to show the audience the journey that he is on, he is looking at the darkness that all men have within them. The reason that Villeneuve does not want the audience to know these characters too well, or have a strong connection to them initially, is so he can present them as just average Americans who easily accept darkness and evil into their hearts when faced with tragedy. None of the characters is shown as being noble; there is only cruelty – every action justified by an even greater perceived evil. This also enables Villeneuve to do something particularly interesting: even though Dover’s actions are unforgiving, in the moment the audience is right there with him because in their hearts, they too believe Alex is guilty (without actual proof). Thus, Villeneuve asks the audience as well to look inside themselves and consider what they too are capable of and what their true nature really is when faced with heightened emotions and circumstances.

All this leaves Prisoners feeling rather heavy emotionally. Plus, Villeneuve paces the film very slowly on purpose to drag out the agony to get the attended emotional response from the audience – a feeling of being emotional drained, as if there is no light in the world, only shadow, bleakness, and despair.  And yet, Villeneuve brings the narrative to somewhat of a happy conclusion, but he has done such a marvelous job of dampening the world and humanity it does not really matter. None of these characters will come away from this the same (and not in a positive way).

However, while the slow pacing is effective in that it allows Villeneuve to create an overall tone of despair, the film does feel long at times, which does detract from the narrative slightly. Villeneuve does counteract this, to some degree, with great thrilling moments and intriguing story twists though.

Detective Loki is an interesting character, but the audience never really knows anything about him. Villeneuve only shows him on the job. The case seems to be taking a toll on him, more so than maybe it should be, but the audience does not really know why. He is a loner, has some interesting tattoos, an odd twitch with his eyes, and seems to be completely engrossed in his job with nothing else going on. But really, he is just a shell for the audience – a conduit by which the audience gets clues and unravels the mystery. Loki is almost void of anything the audience can latch onto and take stock in, and yet at least half the narrative is spent with him. To some extent, Loki can be seen as the film’s way of portraying itself as a mystery thriller, while Dover is its more grandiose narrative endeavor of digging deeper into the core of man – and whether man is inherently good or evil.

Villeneuve takes a perverse look at Christian-based religion (or just religion in general really) as well. The characters that carry out the most evil acts are all justified (in their own eyes) by God, as are many who have done terrible things. What does it say about man, and his relationship with God, that he can know so truly that his actions, no matter how brutal or socially vilified, are just? And also, what does it say about man’s perception of God that he believes that his actions are what God wants/intends or that he will be forgiven? In both cases, man is merely projecting himself onto the idea of God as a means of justifying or coming to terms with what man has done or is going to do. Villeneuve presents all of these characters as being morally wrong: the man of faith who murders a confessed child-killer rather than trying to forgive and rehabilitate him through the proper channels (assuming that is even possible); a father who brutally and unforgivably tortures a man he believes to be involved in his daughter’s disappearance for information instead of leaving it in the hands of the police; a mother and father who sit by and do nothing to stop the torture of this man; and a kidnapper/killer who takes children to reveal to God who people truly are on the inside (as if God would not already know) – weak, scared, and brutal.

Everything thematically adds up to an experience that does not look too pleasantly on the nature of man. Prisoners is a journey into the darkness; and once there, man’s true form is revealed (much as the kidnapper intended). But, while the film is emotionally draining and maybe overlong, it is also a very good mystery with some great thrilling moments that takes a genre that has become quite mundane and boring in recent years (plagued with by-the-numbers and laughable plot-twists) and presents something that is wonderfully compelling as a mystery genre Hollywood film.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Denis Villeneuve has really announced himself as a new master of the mystery genre, a genre that has all but died in contemporary cinema – co-opted by Hollywood injecting the films with out-of-place big action set pieces or awful (and stupid) plot twists (see this year’s Now You See Me for an example). With Prisoners and (more so) Incendies (one of 2010’s ten best films), Villeneuve has breathed new life into the genre that when does right has given cinema some of its greatest and most engrossing moments and stories. I very much look forward to his next film Enemy.

Prisoners as a whole has a very dark tone, from the music to the lighting and production design. Composer Johann Johannsson’s score accompanies this tone very effectively, in a sense further pulling any feelings of joy or hope out of the audience. Roger Deakin’s cinematography captures the tone wonderfully as well. Everything looks very dreary and muted, especially after the girls are taken. The opening scenes are full of bright fall colors and the warmth of Thanksgiving, but that color never really finds its way back into the narrative. Stylistically, the film sort of has the same look and feel as another great mystery Se7en. Patrice Vermette’s production design too thematically presents the world as being a dismal scary place, probably best seen in his sets for Dover’s father’s dilapidated building, the dirt basement below Father Dunn’s house, the decrepit maze-graffiti-filled house, and the kidnapper’s dirty, stripped down holding areas. Every creative aspect of the film works well to fulfill Villeneuve’s intended feel and look.

The cast is strong throughout. Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, and particularly Viola Davis are good in small supporting roles. David Dastmalchian just seems naturally very creepy and off, which serves him very well here. He also plays his character with an exciting intensity that pulls all focus. Paul Dano has the most difficult role in the film as Alex, the man Dover believes is responsible for his daughter’s disappearance. Dano plays with Dover and the audience. He appears innocent, but all involved are certain of his guilt as well. His performance allows the audience to support Dover, regardless of his brutality (which in turn should evoke questions about ourselves). Melissa Leo is also very good as Alex’s adoptive mother. She seems beaten down by the world, but there is something more there too. Jake Gyllenhaal is quite good, especially given that he is basically playing a shell of a character as Loki. He brings so much to the role, creating a real person out of nothing. Hugh Jackman as Dover feels in moments as being rather flat. He basically is just really angry and yells a lot. But, his performance is deceptively great. There is such intensity to his energy. He comes off as a tortured soul, not just because of what happened, but also as a man that has always lived in the darkness.

Summary & score: Prisoners is a great mystery with some good thrilling moments, but maybe more so it is a very depressing look at the nature of man and his internal darkness. 7/10

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